Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language


Origins of the Specious is a terrific double-take title, especially this year, the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species. Darwin’s Origin is not exactly a light read; Patricia T. O’Conner’s is. My family values the genre of what we call “the dipping book”? — the sort you can pick up idly, dip into, and retrieve a useful nugget of information, a memorable anecdote, a humorous trifle, or perhaps an intriguing but only pleasantly difficult conundrum. Such books make the perfect accessory for the guest room, the bedside table, the bathroom, the side of the stove where you’re waiting for the water to boil — ?anywhere where you might enjoy a refreshing slurp of arcana.

I had high hopes for O’Conner’s dipping book. The author, who was an editor at The New York Times Book Review, has carved out a niche for herself as an entertaining writer on grammar and usage. In her frequent public radio appearances, she comes off as a cheerful opiner who can admit to error. She sets up her tent in the democratic, descriptivist camp: “People often ask me who decides what’s right. The answer is we all do. Everybody has a vote. The ‘rules’ are simply what educated speakers generally accept as right or wrong at a given time. When enough of us decide that ‘cool’ can mean ‘hot,’ change happens.”

In Origins of the Specious, O’Conner aims to debunk various explanations, rules, and vaguely held notions. Sometimes her topics are grammatical: Is “none” singular or plural? She roams anecdotally through eponyms?: Did Thomas Crapper really enter linguistic history through the toilet? Was Errol really the first Flynn to be in like? Social anxiety enters with pesky pronunciation matters: How French are “lingerie” and “chaise longue”? — or should I say “chaise lounge”? How much Latin do you need to know to decimate?

She does not shrink from taking on linguistic bigotry: How offensive are we being if we call a spade a spade or a shyster a shyster? A few of her entries have nothing to do with words at all: Did quilters send signals to escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad? And then there are sheer puzzlements: What’s the deal with “dilemna”?

Darwin, in his Origin, borrowed the phrase “survival of the fittest” to describe the process of evolution. It’s a bit unfortunate, because it tends to connote “survival of the best.” Darwin, though, wasn’t making any moral, aesthetic, or even utile prejudgments about what nature (let alone nature’s God, if he wanted to hedge his bets) thought was the best; ?he simply meant what turned out at a particular moment to fit most successfully into its circumstances. That could mean something as dramatic as two stags in rut duking it out, but it could also mean which grasses could survive at the edge of a desert. For nectar-sipping birds, it might matter which beaks fit better into the flower cups around them, and for those flowers it might matter whose pollen was most accessible to the beaks of the birds. Adaptation is more than a two-way street? — it’s more like dodgem cars. In O’Conner’s Origin, her attitude to language in the wild often conforms to a Darwinian view. Words are formed and changed in relation to their usage. O’Conner bows to “nucular,” warms to “herstory” and “grrls,” and welcomes “dis” and, like, “like.” Her enthusiasm for the vagaries and fillips of English — ?its messy “wiggle room” ?– is infectious: “Is this a wonderful language, or what?”

But O’Conner is less sympathetic about domesticated language. In this her attitude is un-Darwinian. Darwin begins his Origin with a chapter on domestic animals: ?how we humans have selected certain characteristics as desirable and, through breeding for those characteristics, become the guides of quasi-evolutionary changes. Bigger eggs! More milk! Pink daffodils! Hairless dogs! In one sense these changes are unnatural, but in another they’re completely natural? — these alterations arise out of human drives and desires. Humans are also grammar-figuring-out animals. O’Conner can be sarcastic to the point of intolerance about people who uphold certain official grammar rules: ?they don’t like to split infinitives or end sentences with prepositions, and they do like to differentiate between “as” and “like” or “who” and “that.” She says that split infinitives and so forth all have a venerable history, often having their roots in Anglo-Saxon practice. The rot began when people started to write English grammar books and mistakenly drew upon Latin rules to make written English more rigorous. Well, I’m sure her history is right on all this, but surely these cases, too, are examples of how innovation entered the language, what becomes a traditional practice, and, in short, how words change in relation to people.

For a while, I was definitely enjoying dipping and dabbling away. So how come I became increasingly crabby as I read?

For a tolerant person, O’Conner can be snide about other people’s opinions and, worse, mistakes. But surely we all make grammar and pronunciation and usage mistakes. ?I still blush at some, and I’m sure more mortification awaits. In high school, I once used what I thought was a synonym for “twit.” I am still hugely grateful to my friend Bill, who called me up and gently told me that “twat” didn’t actually mean that. I have no idea how I came by my misunderstanding, but literary detectives have found out precisely where the Victorian poet Robert Browning got the idea that “twat” was a kind of medieval headgear for elderly nuns. I bet a bunch of us let out a gasp of appalled laughter at what the slang expert Eric Partridge called “the literary world’s worst ?brick’” because we know that there, but for the grace of God…. But when O’Conner tells this story — ?and she tells it well — she snarkifies it: Given Browning’s ignorance of the word “twat,” she says, “One wonders how he and his equally sheltered wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, managed to produce a son.” Oh, I don’t know; even at 16, I could definitely conceive of a fruitful future despite my inadequate grasp of sexual slang.

Quibbling over grammar and usage is, of course, what wordsmiths? — even “self-proclaimed wordsmiths,” as O’Conner calls the people who disagree with her — live for. I’m sorry that she has decided that the word “niggardly”? — which comes from an Old Norse word about making a big fuss over a small thing, and which gets literary cred by being used by, say, Chaucer — is so likely to give offense, however mistakenly, that we should eschew it; I disagree that it’s a justly obscure word with more interesting synonyms. But our disagreement on such a point is just part of the rough-and-tumble of the verbal life. But I have to admit my jaw dropped at her conclusion on poor “niggardly”: “Somebody who uses it is in effect telling his audience: ‘I’m smarter than anyone who’s dumb enough to get mad.’ ” If we’re all going to start taking offense, I’ll start here.

Alas, it might well be that niggling, nitpicking, and persnicking attend all writers on grammar. ?I certainly haven’t escaped from them here. O’Conner’s book can be a pleasant enough place to take a dip. But before you dive in, watch your head: The water’s pretty shallow.